“Watchmen” co-writer David Hayter is one of the biggest names in sci-fi and the film industry and we are honored that he’ll be joining us as a panelist at the Screenwriters Conference this October. David took time out from preparing to make his directorial debut on his thriller script “Wolves,” to answer a few of our questions.
AFF: You have received much acclaim for your screenplay adaptation of “Watchmen,” especially for its accuracy being translated from a comic. When adapting any piece of work to screen, how important is it to be accurate to the original body of work? How much creative lenience should writers allow themselves?
HAYTER: Each adaptation is different. With WATCHMEN, I felt that Alan Moore’s story, characters and dialogue were all exceptional, and should not be altered to any great extent. My philosophy is; When it’s great, don’t f#*k with it. I like to keep whatever elements really move me from the original material, and translate them into the screenplay. However, that does not mean that a writer should necessarily go for a word for word adaptation. Many times, the dialogue does not translate well from the page to being spoken out loud, or the pacing does not fit into movie a tight movie structure. (The debate over WM focuses on those very elements, btw.) There are adaptations I’ve done where I have just taken the basic concept and essence of the original work, and written the rest as I feel will best work on screen.
Adapting a novel as perfect as WATCHMEN is an extremely rare opportunity. In short, writers should use their best instincts when determining what to keep and what to change.
AFF: What was the impetus for co-founding Dark Hero Studios (with producer Benedict Carver and production efforts specializing in horror, comic book and video games), as opposed to continuing on independently?
HAYTER: Actually, Dark Hero Studios was created to give my work a shot at independence. I traditionally work on very big, expensive movies, produced exclusively by the major studios, and while this can be extremely rewarding, it can be difficult to maintain control of the material. Benedict Carver and I formed Dark Hero Studios out of a desire to bring top-level storytelling to more modestly budgeted movies. This was to give us a little more control of the material, and offer an opportunity for ownership. It can create more restrictions, to work at a lower budget, but you can also be forced into more creative, filmic solutions. And in the end, it just seemed like an exciting way to make movies.
AFF: What challenges do writers face when working with animated projects?
HAYTER: Well, occasionally some talking animal will drop an anvil on your head.
I have done a little outline work for Dreamworks Animation, but it was really only at the planning phase, so I haven’t really experienced the whole process. I know that an animated film can take as long as four years, so there is a long commitment there. But, you also get to see the project all the way through. So that’s a plus.
Also, many times you can just draw a door on the wall, and walk right through it.
AFF: You’ve done quite a bit of voice acting and understand the importance voice plays in animated features. When you are writing, do you ever imagine specific artists for certain roles? Do you try out voices to see what works best for the character?
HAYTER: I occasionally try to picture an actor playing a role. But I will more often try to create the role out of character traits — “She’s angry at her father, she’s neurotically clean, she’s had a lifelong desire to pick strawberries…”, for example — And then see how that character’s voice evolves. It’s always more fun when you get a great actor, someone you never thought of, and they bring their sensibilities to an original character. That way, the audience doesn’t always get what they’re expecting.
But, voice-work experience is also very worthwhile, in that it teaches you about the value of inflection, clarity, and decision-making in creating scenes. It gives you an interesting perspective.
AFF: For people new to the industry, what do you think are the best stepping stones to a career in screenwriting? What advice do you give to aspiring writers?
HAYTER: I tell them, and this is true, to enter their work into Film Festival screenplay contests. It is the best advice I know. You will have a great deal of difficulty getting your script read, much less appreciated, in Hollywood. It can be done, but without prior credits, you are fighting a severe uphill battle. It costs little to enter a number of world-wide script competitions, and if you win a prize or two along the way, that is something you can use to help get you noticed.
Plus, professional Hollywood types might read your work, and feel compelled to take advantage of your talent and low, low writing quotes.
AFF: Who have you not yet worked with that you’d like to?
HAYTER: I have met, but not yet worked with, Guillermo Del Toro, who is my favorite modern director. I also really admire J.J. Abrams, and James Cameron is my personal idol. Oh, also, Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick and Robert Shaw. (I realize that a few of these may be long-shots.)
Have your own questions for David? Buy your Badge now and ask him at the 2009 Austin Film Festival & Conference, October 22-29.